The Average User Spent Only Three Minutes on Google+ Last Month
To hear Google Inc. Chief Executive Larry Page tell it, Google+ has become a robust competitor in the social networking space, with 90 million users registering since its June launch.
But those numbers mask what's really going on at Google+.
It turns out Google+ is a virtual ghost town compared with the site of rival Facebook Inc., which is preparing for a massive initial public offering. New data from research firm comScore Inc. shows that Google+ users are signing up—but then not doing much there.
Visitors using personal computers spent an average of about three minutes a month on Google+ between September and January, versus six to seven hours on Facebook each month over the same period, according to comScore, which didn't have data on mobile usage.
Behind the lack of engagement are Google's difficulties in differentiating Google+ from Facebook.
When Google+ launched last year, the Internet search giant positioned it as a Facebook competitor where people can share comments, articles, photos and videos with specific groups of friends and contacts.
While Google+ has some original features—including "Hangouts," which lets people start a video conference with up to 10 people—analysts and some consumers say the distinction isn't enough to lure Facebook members away and persuade them to build a network of contacts from scratch on Google+.
"Nobody wants another social network right now," said Brian Solis, an analyst at social-media advisory firm Altimeter Group. For those who already use Facebook, "Google hasn't communicated what the value of Google+ is," he said.
Google executives downplay the direct comparison to Facebook, which has 845 million monthly active users. They have repeatedly said they are making a long-term bet on the initiative, and the company has yet to build up some of the weapons that made Facebook successful, including encouraging app development.
In an interview, Bradley Horowitz, a Google vice president of product management, said Google+ is designed to be more than a destination site and, as a result, is "extremely hard for any third party to measure." Rather, he said, Google+ acts as an auxiliary to Google services—such as Gmail and YouTube—by adding a "personal" social-networking layer on top of them.
For example, Google+ members who search on Google.com can now get personal results that include content from Google+.
Mr. Horowitz declined to share data about how much time people spend on Google+ but said "we're growing by every metric we care about." A Google spokeswoman said comScore's data is "dramatically lower" than Google's internal data.
Still, some key Google+ partners are underwhelmed by the lack of user activity.
Last August, for instance, social-games company Zynga Inc. began offering its games "CityVille" and "Zynga Poker" to people who use Google+. Zynga now has 46.8 million monthly active users of "CityVille" on Facebook and 33.2 million for "Zynga Poker," according to tracking service AppData.com. But the growth of its game players on Google+ has been slow, Zynga said, declining to reveal underlying numbers.
"So far, Google+ is a nice platform but it's been slow on the uptick with users right now," said John Schappert, Zynga's chief operating officer.
Google hasn't yet approached companies to advertise on Google+, but some marketers who are testing the site say their brand messages haven't resonated with consumers as much as they had expected.
Intel Corp. said 360,000 Google+ members have signed up to receive updates from the chip maker since it set up a brand presence on the site. But Ekaterina Walter, who manages Intel's presence on social media sites, said activity on the company's Google+ account is "not as great as we were hoping it was going to be."
While Intel gets dozens of responses to its posts on Google+ Ms. Walter said the company has nine million "fans" on Facebook and gets thousands of comments there.
Google+ "does not have the same degree of vibrancy that Facebook, Twitter or even Pinterest has at the moment," said David Cohen, an executive vice president at Universal McCann, a media buying unit of Interpublic Group of Cos. that helps big marketers spend ad dollars. "Without active engagement, it will not be as attractive to advertisers."
Google has much at stake as it spends heavily on newspaper ads and commercials to promote Google+, including a TV spot involving The Muppets that ran during the Academy Awards. The company's main financial goal of Google+ is to obtain personal data about users to better target ads to them across all of Google.
To some observers, the challenges Google is facing in creating a rival destination to Facebook and Twitter Inc. evokes the problems that software giant Microsoft Corp. has had in creating a rival search destination to Google search with Bing.
Facebook and Twitter helped change the way people discover new things on the Web, rivaling Google as the chief gateway to the Internet. Much of the activity on Facebook is private and can't be accessed by Google's search engine, making search less useful as people spend more time on Facebook.
While some Silicon Valley executives privately give credit to Google for not just ceding territory to Facebook, Google has an uphill battle in slowing down Facebook's momentum.
A Facebook spokesman declined to comment.
All of this makes it more important for Google to win over people like Ben Hopper. The 29-year-old photographer in London joined Google+ shortly after it launched and said he believed the service had potential.
But in November, Mr. Hopper stopped using Google+. Instead, he re-focused on Facebook and social media sites like Twitter. Google+ "was an additional tool that needed time investment—time I didn't have to begin with," he said.